Arlen Specter, who brought a prosecutor’s focus on detail and disdain for deception to the job of U.S. senator, representing Pennsylvania as a Republican for 29 years and a Democrat for his unorthodox final year, has died. He was 82.
He died yesterday at his home in Philadelphia, the Associated Press reported, citing his son, Shanin. The cause was complications from non-Hodgkins lymphoma. In 2005, Specter announced he had Hodgkin’s disease, cancer of the lymphatic system, and received chemotherapy. A recurrence three years later required further treatment.
A former district attorney of Philadelphia, Specter showed off his mastery of the fine points of law while serving on the Senate Judiciary Committee during his entire 30-year congressional career.
His stubborn independence and flashes of contempt for those who disagreed with him earned him the nickname “Snarlin’ Arlen.” Weighing the removal of President Bill Clinton on two counts of impeachment in 1999, Specter criticized the “pseudo- trial” the Senate had held and, citing Scottish law, chose to vote “not proven” rather than guilty or not guilty.
He participated in the confirmation hearings of 13 nominees to the U.S. Supreme Court, including, notably, that of Clarence Thomas in 1991.
In televised hearings that inflamed racial and gender divisions and riveted a national audience, Specter became one of the harshest questioners and outspoken doubters of Anita Hill, a law professor. She testified that Thomas had repeatedly talked about sex and pornographic films while he was her supervisor at the U.S. Department of Education and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Yes on Thomas
The Senate narrowly confirmed Thomas, 52 to 48, with Specter among those who voted yes.
In a 2001 interview with C-Span’s Brian Lamb, Specter said his failure to grasp the degree of animosity he had earned for his aggressive questioning of Hill almost cost him re-election in 1992. Still, he defended his tough stance toward Hill.
“Now, what occurred between Clarence Thomas and Professor Anita Hill, I don’t know,” he said. “But I do know that she had to be questioned about how she could have such a continuing, detailed, friendly relationship with him if what had happened had been so bad, had been harassment.”
During the Judiciary Committee hearings, Specter grilled Bork on his approach to constitutional analysis. Specter later said that his own view of the U.S. constitution “as a living document,” one that could evolve to encompass the right to counsel, for example, was incompatible with Bork’s doctrine of adhering to the “original intent” of its framers.
After his defeat, Bork accused Specter of having come into the hearings with his mind already made up. Not true, Specter told the Pennsylvania Cable Network in an oral-history interview after he left the Senate.
“That summer I had spent two weeks at the seashore reading all of his materials, all of his speeches, all of his opinions,” said Specter, who vacationed with his family each summer on New Jersey’s Long Beach Island. “I knew more about his record than he did.”
In his first experience with a congressional inquiry, Specter served as an assistant counsel to the Warren Commission, which in 1964 investigated the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. He was a key advocate of the so-called single bullet theory, the commission’s conclusion that one high-velocity bullet fired by Lee Harvey Oswald passed through the president and then struck Texas Governor John Connally, seated in front of Kennedy in the open-air limousine.
The single bullet theory became a linchpin in the conclusion, debated for decades, that Oswald acted alone and not as part of a conspiracy.
“They now call it the ‘single bullet fact,’” Specter said in a March interview with Fox News Radio’s “Kilmeade & Friends” program. “Had there been a conspiracy, we would have known about it a long time ago.”
At 65, he started a campaign for the 1996 Republican presidential nomination as an “economic conservative and a social libertarian.” He differentiated himself from the rest of the field by highlighting his support for abortion rights and his criticism of the religious-right movement as an unhelpful “fringe” group.
“If they control the party, they’re going to lead us to certain disaster,” Specter, who was Jewish, told the New York Times during his early campaigning in 1995, speaking of the Christian right. “Not possible disaster, not likely disaster, but certain disaster.”
Specter’s polling numbers never broke out of single digits, and he ended his campaign three months before primary voting began.
The tense relationship between Specter and the Republican Party fractured after the election of Democrat Barack Obama as president in 2008. Already facing a primary challenge from Pat Toomey, a former congressman and president of the anti-tax Club for Growth who had come within 2 percentage points of beating him for the Republican nomination in 2004, Specter was one of three Republican senators who supported Obama’s $787 billion economic stimulus measure in February 2009.
In April 2009, saying his party “has moved far to the right,” Specter announced he was switching parties. As a Democrat, he cast one of the 60 votes, the minimum necessary, to enact Obama’s health-care reform.
For Democratic voters, that wasn’t enough. In Pennsylvania’s Democratic primary in May 2010, Specter was defeated by Joe Sestak, a two-term congressman who went on to lose to Toomey in the general election.
As his Senate career was coming to a close, Specter told the Wichita Eagle that switching parties “worked out badly, let me put it that way, but I do not think it was a mistake.” He said his support of the Obama administration’s 2009 economic stimulus was the final straw in his uneasy alliance with Republicans.
“I cast 10,000 votes” over 30 years, he said, “and that one was the one that broke the camel’s back.”
In a statement yesterday, Obama recalled Specter as “fiercely independent -- never putting party or ideology ahead of the people he was chosen to serve.”
Specter was born on Feb. 12, 1930, in Wichita, Kansas, the youngest of four children of Harry Specter and the former Lillie Shanin, Russian-Jewish immigrants who moved between the East and Midwest as job opportunities dictated. His father’s jobs included peddling cantaloupes and running junkyards.
Specter spent his high-school years in Russell, Kansas, the hometown of another Republican senator, Bob Dole. At Russell High School, Specter was part of the debate team that won the Kansas state championship in 1947.
His parents moved the family to Philadelphia, he said, when his oldest sister reached marrying age and had no Jewish men to choose from in Kansas.
After one year at the University of Oklahoma, he transferred to the University of Pennsylvania, graduating in 1951. He served two years in the U.S Air Force, then earned his law degree from Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1956.
He worked at the Philadelphia law firm that today is known as Dechert LLP from 1956 to 1959, when he became assistant district attorney for the city. In 1964, he took the job with the Warren Commission, officially called the President’s Commission on the Assassination of President Kennedy.
A registered Democrat, Specter said he encountered resistance from the Philadelphia party leaders when he sought to run for district attorney, so he ran instead on the Republican ticket in 1965. After winning, he joined the party. As D.A. from 1966 to 1974, he led a crackdown on police brutality.
He ran unsuccessfully for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate in 1976, losing to John Heinz, and for Pennsylvania governor in 1978, losing to Dick Thornburgh, before finally winning his Senate seat in 1980. He succeeded Republican Richard Schweiker, who retired.
Over the years, he led the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and Committee on Veterans Affairs, in addition to his stint as Judiciary chairman.
Specter’s wife, the former Joan Levy, served on Philadelphia’s city council from 1980 to 1996. They had two sons, Shanin and Steve.
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